A muted battering from Hurricane Isaac

The slow-moving Category 1 hurricane was downgraded to a tropical storm and came ashore with 80-mile-an-hour winds.

What happened

New Orleans’s strengthened defenses withstood a battering by Hurricane Isaac, whose fierce winds and torrential rains caused serious flooding throughout the Gulf Coast this week, but did not devastate the city as Hurricane Katrina had seven years ago. The slow-moving Category 1 hurricane, later downgraded to a tropical storm, lumbered ashore in southeastern Louisiana late Tuesday with 80-mile-an-hour winds, knocking out power to more than 725,000 homes and businesses across the coast. Earlier in the week, the storm battered the Caribbean, killing 29 people in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and pummeled South Florida with winds and heavy rain, prompting Republicans to cancel the first day of their national convention in Tampa.

In New Orleans, many residents chose to hunker down rather than evacuate. Thanks to Isaac’s relative weakness and a $14.5 billion ring of levees built since Katrina, there was no repeat of the catastrophe that occurred in 2005, when 80 percent of the city was left underwater and 1,800 died. “Your city is secure,” said Mayor Mitch Landrieu. “We dodged a bullet.’’

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What the editorials said

Isaac’s landfall while we’re “raw with Katrina memories was another emotional wallop we would have preferred to live without,” said the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Though this storm “isn’t in the same league as Katrina,” which hit land with winds of up to 125 mph, no one is eager to see our upgraded levee system put to the test. Our city has stubbornly rekindled its indomitable spirit since Katrina, but we can’t help but feel some “anxiety that another disaster could upend our lives again.”

“Isaac’s winds are a reminder of the necessity of government—its labor, its expertise, its money”—in times of crisis, said The New York Times. If only someone would tell the Republicans in Tampa. As part of their “simplistic promises about the power of slashing government spending,” House Republicans have cut FEMA grants for disaster preparedness by 43 percent over the past two years, leaving first responders and citizens “less prepared for future hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods.”

What the columnists said

Now “those same Republicans who decry the size of government are lined up for federal aid,” said Susan Milligan in USNews.com. They conveniently forget that private industry won’t “step in and save people from drowning, or help them rebuild their homes” without promise of a profit. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has pilloried President Obama over federal spending, had the gall this week to attack him for not giving his state more funds, said Katrina vanden Heuvel in The Washington Post. Hurricanes, it seems, can “sober the most besotted ideologues.”

At least New Orleans was ready, said Kathy Finnin Reuters.com. Its new “world-class flood defense system,” built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, offers a 350-mile network of enormous pumps, floodgates, and earthworks to protect the city from the disastrous flooding that followed Katrina. One of the most impressive improvements is the “$1 billion-plus, two-mile, 26-foot-high wall”—the largest of its kind in the world—that blocks storm surges from Lake Borgne on the eastern side of the city, said Christopher Helman in Forbes.com. The Corps has also installed the world’s largest water pump, capable of sucking 150,000 gallons per second “out of the below-sea-level bowl that New Orleans sits in.” The city’s residents were “much better prepared than they were before Katrina.”

Yet they remain “dangerously exposed to the next big storm,” said John M. Barry in TheDailyBeast.com. The Crescent City’s new levee system “sounds like good protection. It isn’t.” It is designed to protect the city against a so-called 100-year storm, but “in the last 85 years alone, the lower Mississippi River saw at least four floods bigger” than the 100-year worst-case scenario. What Louisiana really needs is to rebuild its protective coast, which disappears at the rate of a football field every 50 minutes. Reversing that wouldn’t be cheap or quick. But shielding coastal cities from storms is “something the country can’t afford not to do.”

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